Commentary Magazine

What Is the Future of Conservatism?

This article is from our January symposium issue, in which 53 leading writers and thinkers answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” Click here to read the entire symposium.



Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, then Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered that $8,000 worth of drapes be placed over two imposing neoclassical statues–one of them a female figure with an exposed breast–that had graced the Justice Department’s great hall since the 1930s. The statues, known as the “Spirit of Justice,” were not to Ashcroft’s taste. They weren’t seen again until he left office.

Other contributors to this symposium will no doubt have smart things to say about how to make the politically winning case for conservative governance. Better candidates and messaging. Small-government basics. More talk about aspiration, less about tradition. A new approach to immigration based on free-market principles, not cultural prejudices.

And so on. For now, I’d be content simply to be less frequently embarrassed by the party to which I belong.

I know it’s a small thing in the scheme of the universe that Ashcroft should have been offended by a piece of statuary. It’s probably no big deal that Senator Marco Rubio professes agnosticism as to whether the Earth is thousands or billions of years old. Had Todd Akin of Missouri been elected to the Senate, his notions of reproductive biology would have had scant bearing on, say, his votes on defense. The fact that a considerable percentage of Republican voters believe Barack Obama’s college transcripts are the Da Vinci Code of his presidency is of slight consequence to the future of Western civilization. It makes little practical political difference that so many Republicans consider the theory of evolution to be a piece of quackery on par with, say, the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. The mysterious inability or unwillingness of so many Republicans to use the adjectival form when speaking of the “Democrat Party” is not an issue on which the fate of the Republic hinges.

But it adds up. To a greater degree than some readers of this magazine may care to admit, the conservative movement has grown prudish, crotchety, God-obsessed, conspiratorial, retrograde, and insipid. Somebody needs to stand athwart and yell “stop.”

I write this as someone who thinks the Obama administration is wreaking long-term damage on the United States at home and abroad. So it’s all the more depressing that the conservative movement and its organs in politics and the media failed to pass what ought to have been an easy test: winning a winnable election. If the GOP could not defeat an incumbent president who had saddled himself with high unemployment and the most unpopular legislation in modern history, how do they expect to defeat Hillary Clinton should she run in 2016?

Ronald Reagan has now become the patron saint of the conservative movement, and rightly so. Reagan was neither a scold nor a prig. He was a pragmatic idealist who knew how to combine humor with moral purpose. His personal correspondence shows a mind capable of engaging an argument at its deepest levels and extracting philosophical meaning from everyday experience. He lived in his times and could change his mind without betraying his convictions.

Of how many leading Republicans can that be said today? The future of conservatism depends on many things, but surely one of them lies in somehow producing many more Reagans and far fewer Akins.


Bret Stephens is the deputy editorial-page editor of the Wall Street Journal and the author of the paper’s Global View column.